“What if the people hurting us are the people who are supposed to protect us?”
These words, spoken by a young, former sex worker in California, were shared with me a few months ago when I was leading a series of conversations with survivors of violent crime. She was talking about a little discussed fact—police officers who rape and use excessive and coercive force against sex workers with relative impunity. However, the recent arrest of 27-year-old Daniel Holtzclaw, an Oklahoma police officer accused of sexually assaulting at least six women, should remind us that in the conversation about the contentious relationship between the Black community and law enforcement, we should be counting more than just how many shots were fired.
Violence has many faces. Holtzclaw has been charged with 16 felonies, including two-counts of rape and multiple counts of sexual violence against women—all of them Black. These recent acts of alleged vile misconduct against Black women should be viewed as more than an isolated incident of alleged rogue police behavior. Indeed, Black men are not the only victims of routine and vicious police attacks on their humanity.
Marlene Pinnock was pummeled by a California Highway Patrol officer last month. Tyisha Miller was unconscious in her car when she was shot 12 times by police officers who had been called in to help her. Fifty-five year old Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, who was mentally ill, was fatally shot by a police officer for moving toward him with a screwdriver. We might also remember that the presence of law enforcement in our nation’s schools has put our girls at risk of excessive force in their places of learning. Remember Ashlynn Avery—a diabetic high school student who was allegedly shoved into a filing cabinet by school police when she fell asleep reading Huckleberry Finn during an in-school suspension study hall.
Do their names roll off our tongues as examples of police misconduct or as opportunities for us to revisit this nation’s structure (and practices) of law enforcement? Can we picture their faces the way we can see Michael Brown, Amadou Diallo or Oscar Grant?
Unfortunately, most of us cannot. But it’s time to understand that #blacklivesmatter is not a gendered statement.
We are at a critical moment where we can define how we will engage in the protection of our communities, how we will demand police accountability, and how we will reconcile with society’s necessary function of law enforcement such that we no longer tolerate (even implicitly) abusive and exploitative behaviors against anyone. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown has mobilized millions of people to protest the misconduct of law enforcement; and while most of us are incensed by what happened in Ferguson, it is important to understand that Ferguson is but one example of the violence and victimization that Black communities experience at the hands of law enforcement.
If #blacklivesmatter, we will all continue to monitor this Holtzclaw case and ensure that our conversations about justice, protection, and the lingering impacts of excessive police force used against Black Americans include women and girls.
If #blacklivesmatter, we will pledge to commit ourselves to the development of a national call to combat all forms of violence in our communities as well as the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical trauma that are attached to it.
If #blacklivesmatter, then we will stand by our truth that no one—no man or woman—is disposable.
If #blacklivesmatter, we will act like it.
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Defender of Black Women and Girls